I rolled my eyes and shook my head when the gate screeched. I had done so the same thousand times Tom had promised to bring home oil for the hinges. The gate would screech again when he returned from work and I would know he had forgotten the oil once more.
His proposal the night before at Grande Island surprised me. We had talked around marriage many times but nothing more; no promises, no discussion of our future. His reluctance to move our relationship toward marriage had everything to do with his Spanish girlfriend. Maybe he feared I would die too. Whatever it was, something had occurred to change his mind. We would marry though. Oh yes, we would marry. That was the only thing that mattered. My head whirled with excitement at the unexpected fulfillment of my childhood dream. Yes, yes, yes, I would marry him. Hadn’t he known I would say yes? He couldn’t back out now. I wouldn’t let him. Still, something about the proposal nagged at the back of my mind.
I looked up in surprise when the gate screeched. It couldn’t be Tom. A moment later the front door opened and Cora’s lyrical voice carried up the stairwell.
“Hellooo, Aida. Can I come in? Where are youuu?”
“I’m here, Cora. In the kitchen.”
Cora was my best friend from childhood and the one who had welcomed me to Olongapo. She helped me find a good job as a barmaid and supported me in the critical first nerve-wracking few weeks before I found my own apartment and received my first paycheck.
“Hello, Aida. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Cora. I’ll finish the dishes in a moment. Did you see Tommy on the way over?”
“No. I didn’t come from home. I stopped by Luz’s house first. Is coffee made? My coffee pot broke, and I’m dying for caffeine.”
“There, on the sidebar. Be a dear, Cora, and pour me a cup.”
Cora brought the coffee and joined me at the sink.
“You wash and I’ll dry,” she said.
I sipped the coffee between washing plates. “Ummm, why is coffee so good?”
“Why is sex so good.”
“What? Cora! It’s too early for sex talk.”
“It’s never too early for sex talk, sex gossip, or sex.”
“George was over last night, wasn’t he?”
“I thought so. That’s why it’s never too early for sex. Are you seeing him again tonight?”
“No. He leaves for Thailand this week but doesn’t know when. He’s staying on base in case he has to leave in a hurry.”
“Poor thing. You’ll live. Anyway, I showered with Tommy this morning, and he made my knees weak. Afterwards, I let him brush my hair. It excites him. We’d be in bed now if he had not had to work.” I paused and looked at Cora from the corner of my eyes. “He made me happy in a different way last night.”
“Oh? In what way?”
“First, we have to speak English from now on.”
“Speak English? Why we have to speak English?”
“Because, if I am going to meet Tom’s parents I want to speak good English to them and leave a positive first impression.”
Cora stopped drying the plate and stared, her mouth open. She had wondered if Tom would ever propose and constantly reassured me that he would. Still though, she could barely contain her surprise and joy.
“Aida! No. He didn’t. He proposed? What did you say? What did you say?”
“Oh, I said no. I told him I don’t want to get married.”
“Aida! What did you say? You didn’t say no. Why did you say no? Why don’t you want to get married? What’s the matter with you?”
“Oh, Cora, I’m only kidding. Of course, I said yes.”
“Oh, you,” she said laughing as she hugged me. “I’m so happy for you, Aida. At last, he asked you.”
“I know. I almost gave up hope.” I looked out over the courtyard as my mind wandered back to the seawall and Tom’s proposal.
“Ohh, let me see the ring.” Cora yanked me back to the present when she took my hand. “Where’s the ring? He gave you a ring, no?”
“Oh. No.” I stared at my ring finger. A cold fear gripped my heart. “It never occurred to me. Oh, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Cora pursed her lips as she rubbed my finger, her eyebrows raised in surprise and concern. “I don’t know, Aida.”
“What, Cora? Why do you say that?”
“I hope it means nothing. He should have given you a ring.”
“I don’t think he planned to propose, Cora. It was spontaneous. We were sitting together on the seawall at Grande Island talking when he grew quiet. He looked at me like he wasn’t sure how to begin. Then, he asked me.”
“He was serious?”
“Yes. At least I think so. I wondered at first if he were joking. He seemed far away too, though. You know how he gets.”
“I know. Like he’s someplace else. What about this morning? Did you talk about it?”
“No, but I told him in the shower how happy he made me.”
“Aida! That only means you want to have shower sex. What did he say?”
“Nothing. He went to shave and I finished my shower. He brushed my hair after that.”
“You two act like you’re married already.”
“Oh, Cora. If that’s what marriage is like, I’m going to be so happy.”
Inwardly, I agreed with Cora. Tom and I did resemble a married couple. Still, the uneasy feeling that had bothered me since Tom proposed returned.
“Cora, I love Tom. I love him so much, and I know he loves me, but there is another woman who comes between us. He still loves her. I know he does. I think….” I paused, my back against the counter and my fingers gripping the edge. “You know, Cora, about Tom’s parents, his birth parents? You know he was adopted?”
“Yes. I know.”
“Tom’s father met his mother, Susanna, while he served in Spain.”
Cora dried her hands and hung the towel on the rack. She picked up her coffee and leaned against the counter. “Yes, yes. I know all that. Go on.”
“Well, Tom also met a woman in Spain. Her name too, was Susanna. He asked her to marry him, but she died before they could marry.”
“I know. Poor Tom.”
“Yes. Poor Tom. I don’t think he has recovered from her death, Cora. Sometimes I think he fears doing anything that will harm his memories of her. I think he’s afraid to be unfaithful to her.”
“That’s silly, Aida. Why would he think that? She’s dead. How could he be unfaithful?”
“I know. It’s crazy, but I think that’s what he believes.”
“Have you asked him about her? Have you asked him if he still loves her?”
I shook my head. “We’ve talked about her—and he’s spoken her name in his sleep even, but, I’m afraid to press too hard. He cries for her, and I’ve seen him shaking so hard and clenching his fists it makes me worry. I want to speak to him about her, but I’m afraid.”
Having managed to discourage myself, I fought back tears and tried to focus on the happiness I had felt all morning, a nearly futile exercise. I handed Cora the last dish, rinsed out the sink and sat at the kitchen table and stared at my hands in my lap. Cora put the dish away and sat next to me, sipping her coffee.
“Does he get angry when you speak of her?”
“No. He isn’t like that.”
“Well, what then?”
I didn’t want to betray Tom’s confidence, or hurt him, but Cora was my best friend. “I came home one night and found Tom listening to a song on the radio. He was crying.”
“Crying? Tommy? No. Why?”
“He wasn’t crying, crying. But his eyes were red. I mean, you can tell when someone has been crying.”
“What was the song?”
“What’s In A Kiss.”
“Oh. I love that song. Why did it make him sad?”
“It’s the song that most reminds him of Susanna.”
“Ohh, that is sad. He is so sentimental.”
I couldn’t stop the tears and covered my face with my hands. “He still loves her, Cora. Can he love me too?”
“Oh, Aida. Don’t cry.”
Cora set her coffee down and pressed my head to her shoulder, holding me while I wept until my belly ached.
“I’m okay now, Cora. I should be happy that he proposed, I guess, instead of crying over his feelings for a dead woman.”
I dabbed my eyes with a towel and stared at my ringless finger, wondering if what Cora implied could be true. Had Tom been serious? Would he change his mind?
Dejected and worried, I smiled weakly at Cora.
“I need to wash clothes now, Cora. Will you stay?”
“Of course. I’ll carry the basket.”
“Thank you. Oh. Wait a moment. I need to put away the dishes.”
We tidied the kitchen, then collected the laundry basket and walked outside. The hot, bright sunlight made me squint as we walked across the courtyard. The flip flops we wore flapped against our heels with a rhythm suited to our languid motion. We washed clothes in the pink plastic tub I had brought from my village. The water from the spigot over the tile washbasin next to the gate ran cold but felt good. We squatted on our heels and chatted while we worked. I beat Tom’s dirty work coveralls against the tiles, then rinsed them and, with Cora taking an end, wrung the water out before hanging them to dry on a line strung between the house and a gate pillar.
My search for a fairy tale ending had become an all-consuming passion: marry a Sailor and live in America where everyone lived happy and wanted for nothing. From the day I first met him, I had pinned my hopes on Tom Nelson as the means through which I would realize my dream. He would follow through on his proposal of marriage despite the dead woman. I was sure of him. I would see to it.